As the AMP Foundation marks its 25th anniversary, CEO Helen Liondos shares lessons learned, her thoughts on the changing nature of corporate philanthropy and even a couple of stories of failure.
Nicole Richards, November 2017
Helen Liondos is one of only a few people who can tell you exactly how good the view is from a platform on the 45th floor of AMP’s Circular Quay office. It’s not a micro-balcony from which to sip cocktails and admire the harbour though – instead, it was the plate-sized launch pad for a zipline from which she rocketed down 19 stories between buildings last month.
“I was the last person to do it, and I knew I was going to hold everyone up because I don’t like heights,” Liondos says with real feeling. “You literally had to stand on the edge of the building on this tiny platform and fly down between buildings. It was an amazing experience, but not one I’m in a hurry to repeat!”
The daredevil zipline raised more than $1.054 million for 15 community partners as part of the AMP Foundation’s 25th anniversary.
Since its establishment in 1992 as the philanthropic arm of financial services company, AMP, the AMP Foundation has distributed just under $90 million to community organisations “to help create a better tomorrow” with a current focus on education and employment for disadvantaged Australians. Among the Foundation’s 2016 community partners are The Conversation, Global Sisters, First Australians Capital and STREAT.
Supported by generous matched giving and volunteering programs, AMP employees are active givers too, raising more than $829,000 and contributing almost 20,000 volunteer hours in 2016 alone.
Strong engagement reflects the changing nature of corporate philanthropy, according to Liondos, who has headed up the AMP Foundation since 2004.
“Philanthropy goes beyond grant making,” she says.
“It takes time to develop your personal theory of change as a funder and organisation. We’ve seen over the years how important it is for our philanthropy to be aligned with the company’s business, which is why we’ve narrowed our focus areas. This also gives an opportunity to develop some deep knowledge about issues and I think you need that for effective philanthropy.”
“In the early years of corporate philanthropy, most people focused on programs and very tangible things like hospital equipment and there was a real reluctance to fund salaries for not-for-profit staff. We believe in funding vital infrastructure for our community partners because often that’s what will help the organisation scale up and be more efficient or become better advocates for social change.
“All our board members are enlightened, smart people and I think having come from the business sector, they understand the need for capital to operate an organisation effectively. They were early adopters of impact investing too.”
Among the Foundation’s most significant achievements, Liondos lists the organisation’s founding support of Social Ventures Australia (SVA) and The Funding Network, its early backing of Good Start as the only institutional investor, and its growth capital support for the Leukaemia Foundation which helped the organisation establish offices in every state, giving it the capacity to support more than half of all Australians diagnosed with leukaemia today.
“I’m really proud of all our work, but especially our work with SVA,” Liondos says. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. It has introduced new perspectives and frameworks for non profits and philanthropy and has developed many Australians firsts, such as Australia’s first social impact bond. They’ve demonstrated how venture capital can work in the nonprofit setting.”
Liondos says asking community organisations to “jump through hoops” is the antithesis of the AMP Foundation’s partnership approach, though, she concedes, evaluating impact can still be a challenge.
“I don’t know if it’s a trend or just wishful thinking, but I do think as a sector we’re getting better at looking at impact,” she says.
“Sometimes when you get reports from community partners, you end up with a 20-page document that talks about a lot of activity, not impact.”
“The fact is that sometimes you won’t know the true impact of the work that you’ve funded until the next generation comes through. For instance, if you’re funding education initiatives for Indigenous kids, you’ll see some indicators, such as how many students are entering university but you’re not going to know the value of that education until their own kids are born. The raw numbers won’t tell you anything about the quality of education those kids are getting.
“I think we always need to be careful when we look at the statistics that are given to us and, as funders, I hope we start asking more questions and provide the funding that’s needed for nonprofits to get the base line and track progress. If we want nonprofits to be effective, we can’t be thinking in one or three-year funding cycles – that means they’re just continually looking for money without the opportunity to grow and become sustainable.”
One of the AMP Foundation’s signature programs is the AMP Tomorrow Fund, which, for the past four years has distributed $1 million to “amazing Australians doing great things”.
“It’s unique,” Liondos says. “There are no categories – you could be an artist, an athlete, a scientist, an inventor, a small business owner or someone working in education. There are no categories, no age limits. You can use the funds [up to $100,000 per person] for pretty much anything – whatever’s going to further your dream.”
If the prospect of evaluating the resulting 2,000 applications each year sounds daunting, that’s because it is.
“It’s a big undertaking and it is hard, but we're getting pretty good at making decisions,” Liondos says. “There’s a lot of due diligence and we have a lot of external subject matter experts who help us.”
This year, 45 Australians including social innovators, athletes, educators, entrepreneurs, musicians and medical researchers were crowned AMP Tomorrow Makers. [Read more about them here].
The AMP Foundation is a leading advocate for transparency in philanthropy, something that was “borne out of frustration on my part,” Liondos explains.
“We all want to do things better, but you can’t if you don’t have the information. You often don’t know the structure of organisations or how much their giving. Without knowledge, you can’t improve or benchmark.
“People are usually really surprised that we’re so open as a foundation, but we’ve got nothing to hide.”
True to that ethos, Liondos is the first philanthropic executive out of the hundreds this interviewer has spoken with over the years, to volunteer stories about what didn’t work.
“Here are a couple of things that didn’t work,” she says matter-of-factly.
“One was funding a program for young Aboriginal people that we’d been supporting for six months to a year. We’d been getting glowing reports about how many young people had been attending training so we thought it’d be really interesting to see what’s happening firsthand.
“When we got there, we saw that all the “young people” were actually aged 60 and over! The organisation had been getting the participants through a third party who clearly didn’t have access to the right demographic.
“My most valuable lesson has been to always do a site visit – you’ll either find good things the organisation forgot to tell you, or you’ll see things that shouldn’t be happening in the first place.
“The second example is a startup we funded many years ago, which had a seasoned CEO and a very experienced chairperson. I guess we took it for granted that they were going to be successful based on their past achievements, but what we didn’t realise was that they weren’t hungry enough to look after a startup – they were used to being in positions of authority and power whereas it’s a completely different proposition in a startup. They took their eyes off the ball completely and didn’t go anywhere.
“It goes to show that it’s easy to make assumptions and my second most valuable lesson is don’t take things at face value. Ask questions to really understand the results people are giving you.”